Last U.S. Troops Leave Iraq, But 16,000 from State Remain

Watch the footage from a predator drone as it monitors the final convoy to leave Iraq. There is no audio, just the silent black and white video that lasts under two minutes.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator provides over-watch as the last convoys cross the border out of Iraq at 11:30 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time). U.S. Air Forces Central Command provided more than 14 Air Force and U.S. Navy aircraft to ensure safe passage for more than 125 vehicles filled with Soldiers and Airmen as they make the historic trek across the border.

Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait — The last U.S. troops crossed the border out of Iraq shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday, officially ending a war that gave rise to a fledgling and still unstable democracy in Iraq but also cost almost $1 trillion and the lives of some 4,500 American service members.

The troops crossed a berm at the Kuwaiti border that was lit with floodlights and ringed with barbed wire, and were met by Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who until Friday was the top U.S. commander in Iraq. The convoy’s arrival in Kuwait, after a week of ceremonies in Baghdad marking the end of the war, was kept shrouded in secrecy to protect the almost 500 troops and more than 110 vehicles that were part of the last convoy. – Washington Post

As the final U.S. troops leave Iraq, they leave behind the largest U.S. Embassy in the world.

There will be about 16,000 people working for the State Department at the embassy in Baghdad and consulates elsewhere in Iraq.

At least 5,000 of those in Iraq will be private security contractors, and there are lots of questions about whether the State Department is ready to run such a big operation in such a volatile country. – NPR.


Military Testing for Traumatic Brain Injuries Questioned

Dr. Alex Dromerick co-directs the Brain Research Center at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. Here he observes Stephen Jones, a policeman who was involved in a motorcycle accident. Photo by Becky Lettenberger/NPR

A joint investigation by ProPublica and National Public Radio has revealed problems with mandated military testing for traumatic brain injury – one of the signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From Propublica:

In 2007, with roadside bombs exploding across Iraq, Congress moved to improve care for soldiers who had suffered one of the war’s signature wounds, traumatic brain injury.

Lawmakers passed a measure requiring the military to test soldiers’ brain function before they deployed and again when they returned. The test was supposed to ensure that soldiers received proper treatment.

Instead, an investigation by ProPublica and NPR has found, the testing program has failed to deliver on its promise, offering soldiers the appearance of help, but not the reality.

Racing to satisfy Congress’ mandate, the military chose a test that wasn’t actually proven to detect TBI: the Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metric, or ANAM.

Four years later, more than a million troops have taken the test at a cost of more than $42 million to taxpayers, yet the military still has no reliable way to catch brain injuries. When such injuries are left undetected, it can delay healing and put soldiers at risk for further mental damage.

You can read the full ProPublica report HERE.

NPR reports that the National Hockey League may have a better solution when testing for brain injuries.

Another problem with the program is that top military officials did not choose a very good test, according to the Pentagon’s own medical advisers. They say the National Hockey League, whose players are constantly hitting the glass — and each other — has a better test to help spot brain injuries than does the U.S. military.

“We find that the testing program is very useful for our athletes,” says Ruben Echemendia, a chief neurologist for the NHL.

There are various computer brain tests on the market, just like there are different kits to test blood pressure, so to pick the best one, Echemendia assembled a Concussion Working Group with doctors, players’ representatives and others.

“All of the research in their tests, all of the peer-reviewed publications that they had, including the reliability and validity data with the tests, and it was fairly clear to us which program we wanted to use in our testing program,” he says.

ANAM was not that test. Instead, the NHL chose one called ImPact.

According to Echemendia, the test can pinpoint problems in thinking, concentrating or reacting in about 30 percent of the players who say, “No problem, I feel fine,” after slamming their heads.

You can read or listen to the entire NPR story HERE.

Panetta Warns Automatic Cuts Equal a Hollow Force

Leon E. Panetta testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee June 9, 2011. Photo courtesy of DoD Screen capture.

Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that automatic budget cuts, triggered by no action by the congressional super committee, would lead to what he calls a hollow force.

“It’s a ship without sailors. It’s a brigade without bullets. It’s an air wing without enough trained pilots,” Panetta said. “It’s a paper tiger.”

Tom Bowman with National Public Radio reports that the Pentagon already plans to cut about $500 billion from its budget over 10 years and now faces another $500 billion in cuts.

But Bowman points out that over the last decade since the 9-11 attacks, U.S. defense spending has increased about $20 billion a year and now accounts for nearly half of all defense spending worldwide.

But a defense analyst who worked in the Clinton administration told Bowman that defense spending could absorb $1 trillion in cuts.

“A build-down of a trillion dollars over the next 10 years would be a 17 percent reduction in the Defense Department’s plan,” Gordon Adams said.

You can read Bowman’s full story or listen to his radio report HERE.

Marine Darkhorse Battalion: Life on the Homefront

NPR Reporter Tom Bowman. Photo by Jacques Coughlin - courtesy of

Twitter, Facebook and the United State’s all voluntary military have changed how families experience war. Marine wives set up Google alerts to get immediate notification if there’s trouble in the region where their husbands are serving. Others lament that less than 1 percent of the population serve in the military. They believe many of the remaining 99 percent are unattached and unknowing about the everyday sacrifices and struggles experienced by military families.

In his final of seven stories on the Marine Darkhorse Battalion, National Public Radio’s Tom Bowman  talks about what it’s like for the Marine families who wait at home.

Part seven of seven

LAURA SULLIVAN, host: All week, we’ve been reporting on one Marine unit. They’re called Darkhorse. And they had a horrific deployment to Afghanistan about a year ago. They lost 25 Marines and many, many more were wounded.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been telling their stories. And Tom’s here in the studio with me now because we wanted to learn a little bit more about these Marines and their families and how they made it through. Tom, thanks so much for joining us.

TOM BOWMAN: Hi, Laura.

SULLIVAN: I’ve listened to all of your reporting this week, and I think what I’ve never heard before was the detail about what it’s like both for the families and for the Marines in the field.

BOWMAN: Right. My producer, Amy Walters and I, we wanted to give our listeners a better sense of what happened here, why this Marine unit suffered so many casualties. But we also wanted to explore the connection between the deployed Marines and the families back home.

SULLIVAN: We got a lot of response to your series at and on Facebook. And many said bring the troops home and many were saddened by the losses, by the stories of the widows. And we contacted a few of them. Here’s one of them. Her name is Emily Kelly(ph). Her husband is in the Army, and he just deployed to Afghanistan.

EMILY KELLY: The American public needs to hear more of these stories of sacrifice, pain and loss. During World War II, the entire country was at war. Everyone knew someone who had been killed or wounded in action. Today, less than two percent of our countrymen and women serve in the military and it increasingly appears that only their families and close friends even realize that there’s actually a war that we’re losing men and women and weekly. Thank you, NPR, for telling stories like this well, with respect and simply for remembering that many of us sacrifice so much for a country that has largely forgotten us.

SULLIVAN: Tom, I just want to get your reaction to that.

BOWMAN: Well, you know, it’s funny. That’s a theme you often hear from Marines and soldiers and their families that very few people serve today, and there’s really no shared sacrifice at all, like you saw during World War II.

SULLIVAN: Was there anything in the series that surprised you in your reporting?

You can read the full transcript or listen to Tom Bowman’s interview HERE.

Marine 3/5 Battalion Not Prepared for Volume of Bombs

NPR Reporter Tom Bowman. Photo by Jacques Coughlin - courtesy of

A roadside bomb almost every other step – the Marines were not prepared for the sheer volume of explosive devices. That was the key reason the Darkhorse Battalion, known also as the 3/5,  has the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit in Afghanistan over the last 10 years according to NPR reports.

The casualties: 25 Marines were killed in the Darkhorse Battalion, 184 badly wounded during their seven month deployment reported Tom Bowman with National Public Radio.

Bowman has produced a seven part series following the Marines 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, from their October 2010 deployment to Afghanistan Helmand Province through their return home.

“I asked one Marine officer was it all worth it? And he said to me, it depends how Afghanistan turns out,” Bowman said in his most NPR recent story.

Part four of seven

Here Darkhorse Battalion’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jason Morris.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL JASON MORRIS: At the time, I was wondering, what are we doing wrong?

NPR HOST GUY RAZ: That’s the question we want to address today. NPR’s Tom Bowman joins me now. All week, he’s been telling the story of the Darkhorse Marines on the home front. And today, the fight in Afghanistan. Tom, good to have you here.

TOM BOWMAN: Good to be here, Guy.

RAZ: Why the units did this battalion take more casualties than the units that had been there before them?

BOWMAN: Well, you have to go back. The British had been there four years before Darkhorse came in. And they were in roughly the same area as the Marine battalion, but they had a different strategy. They didn’t move out into this area of orchards and fields and heavy brush that they called the Green Zone. And the Marines would frankly say, they didn’t take the fight to the enemy.

So, that meant that the Taliban had a relatively a safe haven here. They stockpiled the area with arms and they were able to sort of lace this area with roadside bombs since the British didn’t push into this area.

Now, the United States had been dealing with roadside bombs now for a decade. The key here was the volume of roadside bombs. The Marines had never seen anything like this before. They were everywhere, almost every other step.

You can read the full transcript and listen to Tom Bowman’s story HERE.

Marine Familes’ Fears Grew with Darkhorse Battalion Losses

A roadside bomb killed Lance Cpl. James Boelk, 24, while he was on a foot patrol, Oct. 15, 2010. The Darkhorse infantry rifleman was on his first combat deployment. Photo Courtesy of the Boelk family.

During their first month in Afghanistan, October 2010, the Marines 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, known as Darkhorse, lost eight men. National Public Radio is running a seven part series on the unit that so far has the heaviest losses of any Marine unit deployed in Afghanistan in the last 10 years.

Part three of seven

Dave Boelk works for the Navy outside Washington, D.C. Every morning when he gets to work, he has a ritual: He turns on his computer and checks the military’s classified reports from Afghanistan.

On Oct. 15 last year, he noticed one report in particular.

“It was just talking about an IED explosion and how many people were injured. There was one KIA. I remember making the comment to some of my colleagues, like, wow, my son’s unit, somebody died, that really hits close to home,” he recalls.

Boelk went about his day. Five hours went by.

“Then I got a call from our daughter. And she said there were two Marines at our house, and immediately, kind of lost my composure at work, obviously. There was just total silence in the office. Of course, what can they say? I just shut off my computers and picked up my bags, and told them I had to go home,” Boelk says.

You can listen to Tom Bowman’s radio story and read the full web post HERE.

Darkhorse Marine Battalion Lived an “Afghan Hell on Earth”

The 3/5 Marine Darkhorse Battalion was involved in more than a hundred fire-fights within the first three weeks of arriving in Helmand Province October 2010. The Marine deaths started almost immediately according to Tom Bowman’s report on National Public Radio. Here’s part two in the seven part series on the Marine Darkhorse Battalion which suffered the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit during the last decade of war in Afghanistan.

Cpl. David R. Hernandez/U.S. Marine Corps U.S. Marines with 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment and the Afghan National Army provide cover as they move out of a dangerous area after taking enemy sniper fire during a security patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, in November 2010. During its seven-month deployment, the 3/5 sustained the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit during the Afghan war, losing 25 men.

Second of seven parts

The Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment remember Sangin in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province as different from anywhere else they’d fought.

Sgt. Daniel Robert describes it as “hell.” Lance Cpl. Jake Romo calls it “the Wild West.” Lt. Col. Jason Morris says he’d heard it described as “the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.”

Morris was the commander of the Marines of the 3/5, known as “Darkhorse,” and Sangin had been a battleground long before he arrived.

You can listen to the story or read the full article HERE.

You can listen to 1st story in the series HERE.

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